Wednesday, February 25, 2009

A wrap-up of the week in Memphis

Ok, that is officially one of the wildest weeks of my life. We promised everyone we would blog daily about the Folk Alliance Conference in Memphis Tennessee, and it was completely impossible to do so.

So let’s do a post-conference wrap up, and tell you all in detail how weird our week has been!

In a nutshell, this is what happened:
We stayed in downtown Memphis in a room at the Marriott Hotel, which was completely booked out by folkies for the conference, and we ran a concert venue in our hotel room every night until 2am, and two afternoons. Every half hour a new and fabulous act came and played in our bedroom. We had a half hour slot for cloudstreet in every session. David Ferrard, our friend from Edinburgh, was our other regular act.

We called our venue “The International Showcase Room”, and we mostly booked acts from outside the United States, but we had a few Americans because for us, they are international.

I’ll post the programme of acts on the blog soon, with links, because you have to go and check out these musicians! We enjoyed every minute of the concert time in our room!

The rest of the day and night we were down in the conference area and exhibition hall, chatting away madly to people (all of whom were wearing a name tag which also said where they came from, very helpful), and connecting with them, and also convincing them to come and watch our showcases. We talked to musicians, folk festival organisers, house concert organisers, venue bookers, a man in a chicken suit, and a few Aussies.

On Saturday night we did our “official showcase” with a p.a. in a bigger room downstairs (and it went really well, to an almost full house!), and we also attended some talks, like a “trad peer group” where we met other traditional singers, song collectors and some happy people who get to work in the Library of Congress. We went to a mad, loud reception for folk Djs which was well catered and in a heated tent, and everyone was yelling, and I wouldn’t have been a dj for the world, they were inundated!

What little time was left after that was spent hunting down nutritious food (quite a big deal) and a bit of it was spent sleeping… in the same room where we held the concerts.

Here’s a bit more detail, by topic:

There was some clear, sunny weather and even a day where it got up around 19C, but overall I was very pleased that I brought my ski jacket and some thermal layers and a scarf and hat. And I was glad we were staying in the hotel, because it was frosty outside, not a concept I’ve ever connected with the Mississippi. From our window we could see the mighty river, most beautiful as it caught the light at sunset on clear days.

There were some recommendations in the Folk Alliance emails we got before we arrived, so we checked out Alcenia’s, which is half a block from the hotel and famous for its Soul Food. Alcenia herself started the restaurant as a way of sharing the love, and as a healing project for herself after her son died. The fa├žade is inauspicious, the interior welcoming, but the wait for service used up half our day, so we only visited there once. When we finally got the food, though, it was magnificent. I had spicy grilled catfish, broad beans and white corn, and coffee. I tried corn bread, but it was way too salty and oily for my constitution. The catfish was delicate and scrumptious. Alcenia gave us a hug as we left, its her policy to do so!

We ate in Beale Street after checking out A. Schwab’s store, an experience that harked back to a former era (and made me think of the main street of Charters Towers), where you can buy a lot of things you didn’t know you needed like cowboy hats, saucepans and plates with Elvis on them. Of course, Elvis was from Memphis so he is well represented in pretty much every shop. The Beale street experience led me to think that meat, fried meat, and iceberg lettuce were the only foodstuffs available here.

A later meal further down Beale Street did little to shift this perception although John’s half rack of ribs was pretty good and my steak was lean.

Finally, on a mission to find a post office, I found a large Chinese restaurant which did a buffet lunch for six bucks, and to my relief I had some vegetables and some steamed rice, washed down with Chinese tea, which made me feel a bit more normal.

Getting around
Outside the door of the Marriott is the trolley car. It costs a dollar to ride it, except at lunchtime when it costs 50 cents. Some of the trolley cars are very quaint and tiny, and some of them are exactly the same as Melbourne’s heritage W class trams. They are in good nick and everyone uses them. The slatted wooden seats and warmth inside took me back to childhood visits to Melbourne, while the broad southern accents of the passengers were wonderful and unreal.

Travelling by cab is more problematic in Memphis. Apparently you need to make sure the driver has turned on the meter if you want to pay something close to the going rate. We had one experience without the meter and one with, and I’d say that’s true.

We were warned by several people not to go out walking. They told us the feeling of quiet and safety is just an illusion. There aren’t many people on the streets downtown. When asked to qualify the warning, we were mostly told that we would be ok walking down Main Street to Beale Street (about a 20 minute walk) because the cops are up and down that street all the time. But don’t wander off into less central neighbourhoods. I was a bit depressed by this information as I love to explore cities, but as it happened, we were so frantically busy at the conference, it was a non issue.

Things we should have done, things we did.
Memphis has a lot of famous attractions, most of which we had no time to visit. These include Elvis Presley’s mansion, Graceland, the Stax Museum of Blues and Soul, and a real southern Baptist Gospel-singing church, which we simply could not get up in time to attend, the day after the conference finished when we had gone to bed at 5am.

But today we had the whole day off. We packed our stuff, scoured our room for leftover flyers and water bottles, stored our luggage, and caught the trolley car to the last stop on Main Street, where I had gleaned good information that there was a terrific restaurant called The Arcade, opened in 1919, and the oldest in Memphis. We went with David Hyams, from Fremantle, for a truly Aussie outing, and when we got there, the guys from King Curly, the band from the Blue Mountains, were there also, taking photos of themselves outside the famous restaurant.

Walking inside, I felt sure I had just entered the set of Happy Days, and expected Pottsie or the Fonz to walk in. We took a booth and sat at the laminex table gazing at the blue sky through huge plate glass windows, then at the menu, which did indeed have a stick-to-the-sides selection of breakfast options. I chose sweet potato pancakes with sausage and poached eggs and grits. John chose country ham with grits, biscuit, fried okra and mashed potato and gravy. David also had the pancakes.

The pancakes came with maple syrup as well as sausage, so you could choose how sweet or savoury the whole effect was, but the pancakes themselves were pretty sweet and nicely crispy along the edges. One bite of John’s biscuit told me two things. They’re a lot like scones, and they’re full of lard. Grits turned out to be almost the same as polenta, but using white corn instead of yellow. Salty, but delicious. Actually, after Memphis I think I’ll need a sodium detox.

After the feast, we walked round the corner to the Civil Rights Museum, which was the Memphis attraction we decided to spend our time in, as we could really only do one thing properly. We decided against Graceland as neither of us really knows enough about Elvis to make it meaningful.

I’m glad we chose the Civil Rights Museum. It was a sobering place, detailing in fascinating static displays the horrifically violent history of America’s South, and yet managing to keep a spirit of hope alive throughout the story. I suppose one of the appalling realisations for me was that the peaceful sit-ins at segregated lunch counters, with violent outcomes, were happening so close to my lifetime. Non-violent protesters were campaigning through the mid sixties, for rights that we don’t think twice about now, with fearful consequences like buses burning, beatings and murders.

The story at the museum finished with a view into the motel room at the Lorraine Motel where Martin Luther King was staying, and the balcony outside it on which he was shot. Such an ordinary 1960s motel.

The emotional experience was tiring, but we needed a walk, along Main Street past the Orpheum Theatre (where Riverdance was playing and Robin Williams will be there in 2 days, when we’re gone), to the Marriott.

We took a cab to the Quality Inn near the airport, and checked out the dinner options. The hands-down winner was the free ride in a pink limo to Marlowe’s, an Elvis-themed American diner where I had catfish and John had pork chop. On the way back, the limo driver stopped outside the gates of Graceland and took our photo. Then it was time to sleep for a couple of hours before heading to the airport.


Monday, February 23, 2009

How to run a showcase room

Chris Pickering in action on Thursday night

The whole idea of a showcase room is pretty strange -  you in effect run a tiny mini-festival in your hotel room, charging other acts to come and play, with everyone hoping that everyone else's audience will rub off on them and produce a fun, memorable and musical result.

(Apparently the private showcase rooms developed out of the desire by a number of those attending Folk Alliance conferences to develop opportunities to strut their stuff beyond their official showcase performances.  And so "guerilla showcases" started to be produced in people's rooms.  The idea mushroomed and eventually became a semi-official part of the conference programme.)

Although total newbies, we had 6 shows to put on (evenings Wednesday to Saturday, with Friday and Saturday afternoons thrown in), and were really grateful to our neighbours across the hall, James Moore and Chicago Mike, who ran “A Little Bit Marvelous”, for giving us tips here and there. We set up our room, which involved leaning one of the two beds up against the wall, collecting a dozen chairs from the ordering place in the lobby, and setting them up invitingly, and a bit of rearranging the furniture. Then we looked at how James and Mike set up their room, which seemed somehow lighter and larger than ours, and we rearranged the beds again, shortly before we opened the doors for the first time! We draped our Australian flag and Eureka flag, and as the week progressed we collected flags from other performers to decorate the room. By far the largest and therefore most eyecatching was the beautiful Scottish flag which Lorna Brooks brought. We pinned it to the curtains, and it was joined by a stars-and-stripes, a Quebec flag, and a Newfoundland flag.

I got some fresh grapes from a store on Main Street, because I was dying for some fresh fruit and they proved to be very popular with visitors to our room.  We also supplied bottled water.  (While some rooms offered free booze as a way to attract punters, we aimed our room at the listening crowd - having learned valuable lessons from Andrew Pattison and the Troubadour crew).

We put postcards everywhere we were allowed to, telling people when we were showcasing, and we put fold-up cards on the tables with the International Showcase Room programme on them, so everyone knew who was on. We had a poster on the door with our programme and our logo!!

And then we waited to see who would turn up…

Well, loads of people turned up, because three floors of the hotel were set aside to be little concert rooms, so they were awash with people sauntering down the corridors and peeking into every room. And by wandering and peeking whenever we could, we got a picture of what everyone else does.

Some rooms are very plain, and are all about getting a taste of the music and nothing else. No decoration, a few chairs and the bed to sit on, no hospitality, and in some cases you can’t even use their bathroom. I didn’t stay long in those rooms. At the other extreme were full suites, using a p.a., catering from the small kitchen, set up as a concert hall with rows of chairs, couches round the sides. Canada seemed to be particulary keen on these rooms, which were absolutely jumping. In the East Canada Suite they had platters of cheese and fruit and free beer to help you enjoy a wide selection of Canadian artists at maximum volume.

Then there were the quirky, atmospheric rooms, decorated with whimsical and personal items to create a friendly atmosphere. Lots of people favoured fairy lights, one room had a string of leaves decked round the door, many of them went for low lighting, and most rooms used one of the beds for sprawling on while listening. Some rooms removed all the beds and they were fun to sing in because there was some reverb.

The noise in the corridors, and often in the rooms, was unbelievable. But people didn’t mind if the door was almost closed; it didn’t stop them coming in to listen, and it did deal with the noise spill a bit.

We managed the noise, everyone pretty much turned up on time, the artists' contributions helped us out a little with expenses, and best of all, we got to hear some fabulous music from musicians we admire and came to know just a little bit.

A mad thing to do for a week, but the most fun in ages!


Thursday, February 19, 2009

Lunch and then the first night

And lunch we did -  at the legendary Alcenia's, just a block away from the Marriott.  We waited a very, very long time for very, very good food.  Worth a visit, but not if you're in a hurry.  We followed the advice of an English friend - "eat catfish from the Mississippi and then see the Mississippi.  Do not do this the other way round!"  Both the fish and the river were a delightful brown.

After a day of preparation and the deployment of advance faffing techniques (and even a nap to wipe away the tiniest bit of jetlag) our showcase room opened with the lovely Lorna Brooks from Glasgow. A fine start.  

We had a full programme of terrific acts throughout the week.  We'll post photos and videos as we can process them, but the level of talent was universally high.  The International Showcase Room was a great success and a whole heap of fun to run.  As well as organising the room, we played at 11pm every night, with David Ferrard following at 11.30.  

Tuesday, February 17, 2009

Memphis Ho!

The world's largest terrarium, Brisbane airport. 

It's a long journey from Brisbane to Memphis. It took us 35 hours and it was Monday the whole time. We jetted, we setted, we made it!

So far the exciting bit has been that John's guitar didn't arrive in Dallas with our other bags, and after some long talks with helpful baggage staff, the verdict was that we should go on to Memphis, and it would either turn up or we would have to start the search from there and "file a claim" (not reassuring words, but at least it happens so often that they have a system).

Remarkably calm about it all, we collected our other bags and went through customs where i had declared my dried apples and chia seeds and almonds (because it said to). There was a long wait while we got shunted about and then had the entertainment of watching a family who had just returned from Mexico, being surprised to find customs weren't pleased with their whole suitcase of meat. Especially the chorizos. They didn't like the cheese either.

Ate a rather yummy deepfried thing involving beans and corn and chillies, which was confusingly called an egg roll (no sign of egg). Had a caesar salad which also had no sign of egg, or anchovies - all the fun bits. John read a copy of the New York Times, with a little boggle of delight at really having a real copy of a really famous newspaper..... (but John's excited by that sort of thing).

Memphis announced itself in shining lights to be the home of the blues, but there were no blues for us, because the guitar arrived too, looking slightly hung-over and sorry for itself (it didn't want to talk about it).

And then we slept the sleep of the sleepy.

 Farewell Brisvegas

Thursday, February 12, 2009

The Big Night

Let's start with the end.....

We stood on the wide stage in the grand old museum, with nine other musicians, in front of more than 200 of our friends, fans and family, and we knew we’d done it! With the help of all our Brisbane friends, we raised the extra money we needed to take us to America. We all sang “Thousands or More” together, and that’s what we achieved. 

The night began with a big set-up effort, aligning chairs, bumping in sound gear, stocking the bar, preparing the box office, and laying out a picnic dinner for all the musicians.

We stuck to our tightly organised soundcheck schedule, and suddenly the lights were low, the audience was seated, and Sandy McCutcheon was welcoming everyone and bringing on the first act of our mini folk festival – The Goodwills. 

Bob and Laurel Wilson (The Goodwills) now live in Maleny, but years of Brisbane life yielded a rich harvest of Brisbane songs, and as many people were reminiscing about last coming to this building when it really was a museum, Bob and Laurel painted the picture of a Brisbane of old: 

I used to like the city better, thirty, forty years ago; We'd sit outside on the veranda, drinking rum and talking slow, When the purple jacarandas, drop their petals on the ground, That's the time that I remember, in that big country town.”

The Goodwills very generously donated the sales from their earliest album to our cause – thanks, Bob and Laurel.

When Sandy introduced the next act, he didn’t let them forget that at their Maldon Folk Festival performance, the audience called for an encore with the words, “Bring back the sexy boys!”  Davydd McDonald and George Jackson wowed us and wooed us with brilliant fiddle and guitar playing, and knocked us out with that so-hot-right-now percussive dancing. Here are the boys in action

- and don’t forget to watch Davydd competing on “Australia’s Got Talent” on Feb 25!

There was a huge warm-fuzzy feeling all around as the Pirate Brides took the stage and filled the enormous hall with their luscious four-part vocals. The Brides looked fabulous, with Marcus’s double bass and Rose’s fiery red accordion particulary eye-catching, even on a stage which included a pipe organ, a grand piano and the QYO’s timpanis and tubular bells. Their songs of angels and lovers and trains and broken hearts; their beautiful, relaxed performance – no wonder the Pirate Brides have become so well-known and loved in Brissie.

Rose, Ryk, Markus and John sang us into the interval, whereupon everyone rushed Andrea’s bar, which was raising money for the Brisbane Folk History Project. We asked Andrea to run the bar and take the money for this good cause, because it wouldn’t have been much fun in the foyer without her libations!

And then it was our turn. At the very last minute, Nicole wanted to change the set list around, and we started with “The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face”, which seemed like a good choice in that echoing space. It was amazing (and distracting) to see SOOO many people we knew, smiling up from the audience, and as we sang our favourite songs, we saw people from every part of our lives: our families beaming in the front row, friends from our home in Maleny, from school, from Woodford Folk Festival, from Sauna Club, from places we’ve worked and sessions we’ve played in, from Brisbane Celtic Fiddle Club, and even the nice man who gave Nicole a lift when she was lost in Moorooka last week! Thank you all for coming and supporting us.

We drew the raffle, with a prize of one of Nicole’s paintings of Morris dancers, and it was won by Helen Sonnenberg. Congratulations!

At the end of our set, we had some collaborating planned, and invited our friend and fiddle-player Emma Nixon on stage, along with all the musicians who had entertained all night, for a rousing and fiddle-filled version of the capstan shanty “Rock ‘n’ Roll Me Over” , combined with Scottish 4-part jig “The Seagull”, (and thanks to our students from Music Under the Southern Cross summer school for enthusiastically joining in from the audience), and finally our farewell song, “Thousands or More”.

It was a massive night, and a round of thanks is due, to all our great friends:

Sandy McCutcheon (MC), Matthew Moline (sound), Bob Hartley (stage manager), Don Jarmey (FOH manager), Fiona Hartley and Samantha Page (box office), Andrea Baldwin (bar manager) and her team, Helena Bond, Keith Urqhart, Carrie Hauxwell, Shaz and Deanna, and Jeff and Ann (CD sales). Thanks also to Alex and Alana, the Old Museum staff, who did a great job, especially Alex for being principal sound engineer.

Monday, February 9, 2009

We did it!!!!

The concert at the Museum was a raging success, with "lots of love in the room" as one friend put it.  Over 200 friends, fans and family came along to join in the fun.  Here's just a few snaps.  More to follow.  We're now packing for Memphis next week!